Well, tonight’s outcome was certainly a pleasant surprise — especially considering the early stacked deck. The New Orleans Pelicans emerged with a 123-114 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, but that outcome seemed very much in doubt less than five minutes into the game.
Anthony Davis was a last minute scratch due to a bad stomach, and Jahlil Okafor, who was AD’s replacement at center — and responsible for most of the Pelicans scoring early, had to sit at the 7:41 mark of the first quarter with three fouls. The Timberwolves seized the opportunity, jumping out to a 15-8 lead, but then the Pelicans rediscovered their long ball stroke, and rode a bunch of hot hands to a 63-51 halftime lead.
On the strength of E’Twaun Moore (3-3), Darius Miller (2-4) and Jrue Holiday (2-2), New Orleans made nine of their 13 first half three-point attempts. Alvin Gentry credited the improved shooting to the increased pace and excellent drive and kicks thanks to the return of Elfrid Payton. Although the Pelicans starting point guard finished with a meager box score line of nine points, six assists and four turnovers, his presence made a noticeable difference to the offense.
“When you play with that kind of pace, what it does is create those open three-point shots,” said Gentry in postgame. “Not the challenged ones that we take sometimes when we’re kind of in a halfway jog in getting back. When we play with that kind of pace and we’re driving into the basket, then our drive-and-kick game is open and you can see it really benefits E’Twaun and guys like that.”
Shots were attempted earlier in the shot clock, in better rhythm, and hey, the guys looked like they were having fun again. Although Jrue Holiday (26 points, eight assists, 8-8 free throws) and Julius Randle (33 points, 11 rebounds, three assists) were absolutely instrumental in the team’s success, one never got the sense they were carrying the weight of the Pelicans hopes on their shoulders. For instance, Julius finished with zero turnovers — Not a single offensive foul was called on him!
The best example of this Pelicans enhanced execution came in clutch time — the biggest sore spot of the season.
Minnesota made a huge run in the third quarter as Karl-Anthony Towns went ham with 13 points. (He finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and six assists.) The Pelicans 12-point halftime lead morphed into a one-point deficit entering the final frame. It remained close throughout the fourth, but the Pelicans did manage to build a seven-point edge with 3:25 remaining. Then the Timberwolves went to work and closed the gap to just three-points. Instead of folding any further, Darius Miller did this.
Miller was money all night but that three-pointer and then a couple of made free throws shortly thereafter sealed the victory for the Pelicans.
“It was collective effort, but I thought obviously Darius did a great job,” said Gentry. “He was healthy and playing at a real high level. I shouldn’t say healthy, he’s still a little under the weather, but he shot the ball exceptionally well. And I thought he was really aggressive in what he was doing.”
The Pelicans reserve forward scored a season-high 21 points on just 11 shot attempts. It was just the second time he’s scored twenty or more points in 37 games, and he couldn’t have picked a better day to do it than on a day missing Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic.
In all honesty, everyone did a little bit of something tonight. E’Twaun Moore once again showed why he needs to remain a starter (17 points, three assists, three triples). Jahlil Okafor posted a line of seven points and seven rebounds in just 13 minutes. Cheick Diallo grabbed nine boards. And Tim Frazier and Solomon Hill came up with a couple of timely scores, steals and rebounds.
Although New Orleans was outscored 58-50 in the paint and 20-7 in points off turnovers, excellent accuracy from the three-point line (56%) and the free-throw line (90.5%) made up for those disadvantages.
Up next, the New Orleans Pelicans will fly to Brooklyn to face the Nets the day after the New Year. With three of their next four games against Eastern Conference teams with losing records, the Pelicans have a chance to put together a nice winning streak to bring in 2019 the right way.
Stay safe everyone and have a happy New Year!